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‘SEVEN ON SEVEN’ SERIES with Steve Ehrhart

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By: Doug Kelly

Director of Communications

Football Bowl Association


September 19, 2016

            Steve Ehrhart is currently the AutoZone Liberty Bowl Executive Director.  He recently sat down with FBA Communications to talk about what his job entails and how previous professional experiences have come in handy.

You have had a varied legal/sports administration career.  How did your experiences as the Executive Director of the USFL, President of the Memphis Showboats, President of the Colorado Rockies Major League Baseball Team and Commissioner of the World Basketball League prepare you for becoming Executive Director of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl?

“I was blessed to receive an NCAA Scholar Athlete Scholarship to attend law school after my collegiate football career.  Thus, I was able to combine my morning law school classes with afternoon coaching duties at the University of Colorado.

“That sports law background gave me the opportunity to have exposure in a variety of sports roles in both professional and college football, as well as in basketball and Major League Baseball.  The key takeaway from this wild career is the highwire balancing act of putting a great product on the field, taking care of your players and still balancing an operating budget.  There are examples of great success, both on the field and in the business ledger at all levels of sports.

  “But there are an equal number of entities that experience a lack of success at all levels, both collegiate and professional.  Just as there are some Universities that have successful models, financially and on the field, there are many not so successful.  The same is true in the postseason football Bowl world.  The most important factor for success is blending the right mix of agendas among the leadership and staff of every organization.  We have recently seen the metamorphosis of University Athletic Directors into very savvy business leaders with marketing, sales, fundraising and “CEO” style experience.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be around some great mentors who taught me a lot about the business of sports.  When I was a young and inexperienced President of the Colorado Rockies, Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn of the Chicago White Sox gave me some great advice.  When I was in my basketball life, David Stern taught me an awful lot about a wide variety of emerging concepts such as the advent of cable and satellite television distribution.  I also was privileged to have a number of great mentors in both the collegiate and professional football world.

“Thus, I was honored and lucky to be around some great sports leaders at a variety of levels and I have tried to carry these lessons forward in helping guide the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.”

In your estimation, what are the major changes that have taken place in the bowl industry since you took over the AutoZone Liberty Bowl in 1994?

            “The biggest change over the last 20 years in the bowl industry is the proliferation of bowl games.  There will always be a debate whether this is positive or negative.  Many more opportunities are available for Universities and their student athletes to have a great, positive experience.  On the other hand, the proliferation makes it harder to keep the bowl experience special and unique.  Is this a level of saturation?  My hope is that each bowl remains unique and continues to create great experiences for the entire visiting University constituencies, as well as maintaining a key and important local community presence.  The University participating in a bowl game encompasses much more than just the student athletes.  For example, the University bands usually comprise two to three times the number of students as the football team.  The band members sweat through their summer practices just like their fellow students on the football team and the band’s bowl experience is their opportunity to showcase their hard work.

            “Thus, although we may have reached the final level of equilibrium with the number of bowls, we certainly can continue to provide compelling and important lifetime experiences for thousands of people every year.”

How do you and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl staff keep your game in the Memphis sports consciousness year-round?

            “At the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, we maintain an active year-round presence.  From spring time events, to fundraising efforts for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, to summer golf tournaments, to sponsoring a variety of events such as the AutoZone Liberty Bowl High School All Star game, to the Ladies Love Liberty Fashion Show, to our Professional Rodeo, we sponsor numerous events all year round.  We also present an Outstanding Achievement Award in the field of music (an award dating back to Danny Thomas and Elvis Presley).  We also have a Hall of Fame of AutoZone Liberty Bowl Distinguished Citizen Award winners.  The 2016 winner was Archie Manning, who was honored in Memphis on June 19, 2016.”

Of all the AutoZone Liberty Bowl games over the past 20+ seasons, does any particular one stand out and, if so, why?

            “Although all of our games have great story lines, to me, four stand out:

  • December 31, 1998 – Undefeated Tulane with quarterback Shaun King calling the plays defeated a fine Lavell Edwards coached BYU team 41- 27.
  • December 31, 2004 – Two Top 10 teams, undefeated Boise State tangled with one-loss Louisville.  Louisville won 44-40 in the highest scoring AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
  • January 2, 2010 – Arkansas defeated East Carolina in overtime 20-17 before a record overflow crowd.
  • Going further back in time to 1982, the most famous AutoZone Liberty Bowl of all time took place on December 29, 1982 when Bear Bryant coached his final game.”

Tourism is an important facet for every bowl game.  On an annual basis, how many dollars does your game generate for the overall Memphis economy?

            “Bowl games are some of the most important economic impact drivers in every community.  Folks who follow their teams do so to celebrate the achievement of their University so they come to town to have an enjoyable experience.  We have had various estimates of spending that calculate new spending in the range of $25 to $30 million dollars annually.  Others have said it for us:

            ‘Game had the largest economic impact of ANY sporting event in the HISTORY of Memphis.’  Kevin Kane, President and CEO of the Memphis Convention Visitors Bureau.

            ‘The AutoZone Liberty Bowl set new records for Beale Street.  We’ve had many huge AutoZone Liberty Bowls over the years, but this was the biggest and best bowl week ever.’” Sandy Robertson, President of Beale Street Merchants Association.”

Unlike other bowls that compete for attention with the four major pro sports, Memphis has just the NBA Grizzlies.  How does the AutoZone Liberty Bowl position itself in terms of generating sponsorship dollars?
            “The AutoZone Liberty Bowl and the Memphis Grizzlies have an excellent working relationship.  The Grizzlies host the visiting teams during their stay in Memphis.  We also have support from many of the same local sponsors such as AutoZone, FedEx and Bass Pro Shops.”

What is the biggest challenge facing the bowl industry going forward?

            The biggest challenge is to continue to create special experiences for all participants in a sports and entertainment world that is overloaded with a variety of options.  We also must recognize that we are addressing constituencies in addition to the student athletes.

            “We are working to create lifetime experiences for the bands, the spirit squads, the students at large, the parents, the alumni, the fans, the administrators, the staff and everyone connected to the University.

  “We are in the fifty-eighth consecutive year of celebrating the AutoZone Liberty Bowl and our goal is to continue for at least another fifty years.”